Every year, I compile a list of my favorite movies from the ones that I saw in movie theaters over the course of the year. Most of the movies were released in 2012, the others were simply showing at a theater somewhere in the Twin Cities (usually at the Trylon Microcinema or the Heights Theatre, two of my favorites). I can’t say these are the ten best movies of the year because I only see about forty of them in theaters, so some good ones undoubtedly slip past me. For example, this year I didn’t get to see Beasts of the Southern Wild, which was acclaimed by friends and acquaintances (to say nothing of the film crickets), nor did I see Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the Don DeLillo novella, which had a one-week run due to the negative buzz preceding it.
Before I get to the list, I’ll acknowledge up front that I don’t have any blockbusters on my list. I did see some of them, but they either didn’t work for me, or I didn’t like them as much as the movies that made my list.
The Avengers, for instance, left me pretty indifferent. I thought that screenwriter/director Joss Whedon too accurately captured the general shittiness of superhero comics’ plotting and dialogue. When the sound blew out in the theater where we were seeing the movie, I figured it didn’t matter, until the next few minutes revealed that what little exposition the story included was being unfolded in an unusually talky section of the movie. The Dark Knight Rises, on the other hand, was too long and too, too much. The movie started with the stakes raised so high that it had no place to go, so it kept raising them until things got more ridiculous than usual in spite of the movie’s relentlessly somber tone. Finally, the blockbuster I had highest hopes for was Prometheus, which I actually liked: it was wonderfully designed, had some tense scenes in it, and used 3D to great effect. I especially liked the dark irony at the plot’s core, but the film really didn’t seem to know what to do with it. Too bad.
One last note: there are actually eleven entries on my list this year. In November, the Walker Art Center mounted a retrospective of the films of French director Claire Denis, which I thought was so good that I decided to put it on my list. Since I already had ten films I wanted to include, I decided to make the list “go to eleven.”
So here are my favorites of 2012, in the order that I saw them:
- A Dangerous Method.
I feared that A Dangerous Method was going to be David Cronenberg’s Merchant-Ivory film but was relieved that it was actually an intellectual psychodrama not at all out of place in Cronenberg’s oeuvre. The movie centers on the pivotal moment in the relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) when Jung started moving away from the pathological orientation of psychoanalysis into more spiritual realms that addressed healing through psychological individuation. At the heart of their rift—and the film—is the compelling Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), Jung’s patient who, to Freud’s consternation, eventually becomes his lover. Their sado-masochistic relationship allows Cronenberg to show us the intensity of the desires roiling beneath the characters’ reserved facades. The acting is first rate, and the dialogue—drawn from correspondence between Jung and Freud—is replete with ideas.
Pina is one of a handful of 3D movies that I saw this year, and it was probably the most justified for being one. The film was originally going to be a collaboration between filmmaker Wim Wenders and the renowned German choreographer/dance theater artist Pina Bausch. However, shortly after the project began, Bausch suddenly passed away. So Wenders and the members of Bausch’s troupe decided to create a tribute to Bausch that contains excerpts from her beautiful, demanding works; new dances created by Bausch’s dancers specifically for the film (often performed in public or semi-public spaces); and brief interviews with some of the dancers. There were so many potent images in the film, that I certainly can’t include them all here, but a moment from early in the film, in which we’re seemingly on a stage covered with earth alongside dancers who are pushed and pulled about by the pulsing dissonance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, in a reimagining of that classic ballet involving what appears to be a cruel lottery perhaps preparing the way for human sacrifice, certainly comes to mind.
3. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.
My favorite movie of the year, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is at once cinematic while also being reminiscent of a great novel. It begins with a long shot of a caravan of cars driving through the hilly Anatolian landscape. Remaining at a distance, we discover through dialogue that we’re watching a group of law officers bringing suspects to the burial site of the victim they’d confessed to murdering. The problem is that they can’t remember where they’d buried the body. What follows, as the group moves from place to place searching for the body, and what happens after they find it, is a dark, funny, and occasionally touching film that raises big questions about life without being sunk by them.
4. The Turin Horse.
The Turin Horse is, supposedly, Hungarian film master Bela Tarr’s farewell to cinema. Opening with a black screen that is accompanied by the recitation of an anecdote about Friedrich Nietzsche’s soul-wrenching grief upon seeing a horse brutally whipped by a cab driver in Turin, Tarr’s film centers on the daily life of a father, his daughter, and their horse, which provides their family its meager living by pulling a rickety wagon. For the remainder of the film, we watch the father and daughter’s impoverished life, as they go through their daily routines—which are so relentlessly identical every day that they can honestly be called drudgery—and realize against hope that their horse is dying. With its expressive black and white photography, its minimal editing with extended scenes played out in “live” time, its repetition, and the nearly oppressive sound of a wind steadily blowing until the film’s last scene, one feels the lives of these poor people in one’s bones. And it can be agonizing. I remember when the titles on the film indicated we were to see a sixth day, a soft but perceptible groan rose up from the audience. Rarely is cinema this physically affecting. In its bodily depiction of poverty and the harsh, even diminished, life that arises from it, Tarr’s film is one of the most politically suggestive I’ve seen this year, even though it’s not an overtly political film. The Turin Horse is certainly not for everyone, but for those who can sit through it, it’s quite an experience.
5. The Kid with a Bike.
The Kid with a Bike follows the deepening relationship between Cyril, an 11-year-old boy in foster care who has been abandoned by his father but who refuses to accept that fact, and Samantha, a woman who unexpectedly appears in Cyril’s life and takes him under her wing. Directed by the Dardenne Brothers, the film has much of their patented social realism, recalling Italian neo-realism in its concern for the lives of the downtrodden and the conditions leading to their situation. With its attention on the life of a boy living in a rough neighborhood who easily slips into committing a violent crime, I almost felt I was watching the backstory for the wayward young man in the Dardenne Brothers’ previous movie, L’Enfant. Most surprising was The Kid with a Bike’s relatively upbeat ending that had a “and they lived happily ever after” quality, though not at the expense of the story’s harder truths. It’s a lovely movie shot through with light and darkness.
6. A Separation.
Those paying attention know that for roughly the past twenty years, Iran has been
producing masterful world cinema. A Separation is like much Iranian cinema in that it uses a personal story to address social issues facing those living in Iran today. The film focuses on Simin and Nader, whose marriage is dissolving in large part because Simin, the wife, refuses to take care of Nader’s father who appears to be suffering from advanced dementia. Though denied a divorce, Simin eventually leaves Nader, taking their daughter with her, and Nader comes up hard against just how far along his father’s problems have developed, forcing him to hire a fairly devout woman named Razieh to help him, though she too struggles with the challenges posed by taking care of the father. Let’s just say things don’t go smoothly, and Nader soon finds himself in the same disempowered position that Simin had been when petitioning for a divorce. A Separation deservedly won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
For me, a teensy bit of Jack Black goes a looooooooong way, so it surprises me to include a film in which he stars on my favorite movies of 2012. However, this is not a typical Black performance. Playing Bernie Tiede, a closeted funeral director in the small town of
Carthage, Texas, Black gives a fastidious performance. The movie is based on the true story of Tiede’s doting relationship with the affluent widow, and local meanie, Marjorie Nugent, which grows ever-demanding on his time, driving him to kill her. The townspeople of Carthage are surprised by Tiede’s crime, but only that Bernie did the killing, not that Mrs. Nugent was killed. In fact, they are more than ready to forgive him his crime because of how likeable he is and how despicable she was. Director Richard Linklater mixes interviews with actual townspeople into his dramatization, which at first feels odd, but eventually contributes to the sense that the film ultimately is less about Tiede and more a likeably eccentric portrait of East Texas.
8. Moonrise Kingdom.
I realize that Wes Anderson is a bit twee for many folks, and I can understand that. For me, though, there’s a sorrow underpinning the comedy—no matter how mannered it might be—that in his best films raises them to the level of early Hal Ashby. Moonrise Kingdom may be the best Anderson film since The Royal Tenenbaums. It tells the story of 12-year-olds Sam and Suzy, a boy and girl in love, who flee their mundane lives to be together, and the messed up adults who lives are brought into focus as they move from trying to hinder the young couple to helping them. The film is very carefully art directed—as are all of Anderson’s films—and shot in Super 16mm, which ups the toy box look of the film, helping it to transcend any notions of realism and launch the story into the realm of a fairy tale. The children are great, as is the marvelous cast of adults. My “favorite” character may have been the rather elfin narrator played by Bob Balaban who steps into the story at one point.
9. The Master.
Inspired by L. Ron Hubbard’s founding of the Church of Scientology, P. T. Anderson’s The Master tells the story of Lancaster Dodd, founder of a quasi-religious movement called The Cause, and his relationship with troubled WWII vet and serious alcoholic Freddie Quell.
The tension of the film is quite high from the beginning, reminding me of the best of J. G. Ballard as it teases out the symbiotic relationship between a psychopath and a charismatic megalomaniac who alternately feed off and fight against one another. Like Ballard’s work, the story’s drama evens out after awhile, less developing toward some climax than becoming a theme with variations. There’s some great acting in the film and, as with every P. T. Anderson film, a bit of overacting that is finely suited to the overheated tone of the film. And even though the thrall of Dodd’s and Quell’s relationship fades a bit by the end, I love their final encounter, which was creepy in its quiet repression.
10. Claire Denis Regis Retrospective
Claire Denis is among the great directors of world cinema, so I was excited that the Walker Art Center programmed a retrospective of her films and a Regis dialogue with her. Her films often focus on marginalized people in striking or unusual settings, such as the weird, almost alien landscape of Djibouti, where Beau Travail is set; or the outlying district of Paris where the action of I Can’t Sleep takes place. Denis’ films are cool in the sense that they require their audiences to actively watch them, offering indelible images rich with suggestion. For its first 75 minutes, or so, I thought her 2004 film The Intruder was almost perfect in the way its often startling and beautiful imagery teased the viewer—was that real or a fantasy?—as it teased out the film’s theme of intruders. The most pleasant surprise for me was White Material, her rather intense film about a French woman who owns a coffee plantation in an African nation torn asunder by civil war who seems to feel that she is immune from the chaos and violence of the world surrounding her.
11. Holy Motors.
I don’t know what else to say about this movie other than it is a weirdass piece of wonder. It’s basically a series of relatively surreal sketches that center on Monsieur Oscar—Oscar Lavant in a bravura performance that ranks among the best on film this past year—who travels around Paris with his trusty chauffeur Céline and puts on bizarre performances that he treats like routine, though admittedly taxing, jobs. I especially liked the sequence featuring Monsieur Merde, a grotesquely made up Oscar who crawls out of the sewer to kidnap a fashion model who’s doing a shoot either in or near a cemetery, though there’s always the scene in which Monsieur Oscar seems to kill his exact double (and vice versa, if that makes any sense) in a warehouse. Of course, there’s also the energetic intermission, which seems to be legal tender on the internet, so I’ve attached it below. The bald man is Monsieur Oscar (or at least Oscar Lavant).